Thirty-four days: that’s how long 73-year-old Carol Lester was held in solitary confinement in the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants according to a lawsuit filed in November. Lester charges that the warden, Arlene Hickson, deliberately put her in solitary confinement because she had complained that she and other female prisoners were being denied medical care.
Lester’s treatment as well as her lawsuit cast a harsh light on a U.S. prison system in which solitary confinement is used more routinely than rarely and in which, more and more, for-profit companies are hired to run prisons. The New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility is not only run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Healthcare for inmates is also provided by a for-profit company, Corizon.
Was Lester Placed in Solitary in Retaliation for Complaining?
It is against both CCA and Corizon that Lester has filed her lawsuit. In 2010, Lester pleaded guilty to embezzling funds from her employer due to a gambling addiction; she received a three-year sentence. Lester has thyroid cancer and, according to her lawsuit, prison officials stopped giving her the medication she had been prescribed and gave her a different medication that made her ill, to the point of fainting regularly.
Even though medical staff told her that she might have a serious heart condition, Lester was not able to see a specialist or sent to the hospital. With her health deteriorating, Lester and other prisoners began a letter writing campaign about being denied medical care. As a result of their efforts, a delegation of state legislators and the head of health services for the Department of Corrections visited the prison and spoke to inmates.
In the meantime, the prison prescribed Zantac for Lester due to gastrointestinal issues. It’s an over-the-counter medication and is known to cause false positives for methanphetamine. Lester, who had no past history of drug use, tested positive for this. She offered to pay for a blood test but was not allowed to do so and was placed in solitary confinement for almost five weeks. During this time, Lester says she was not given the medication either for her thyroid cancer or her heart condition.
Matthew Coyte, Lester’s attorney, says that being in solitary confinement has had lasting effects on her: “Given that she suffers from bipolar disorder, she was particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of solitary confinement and now suffers from PTSD symptoms, as well as her other chronic medical conditions.”
A Last Resort That is Now a First Punishment
A Sadhbh Walshe writes in the Guardian, solitary confinement, rather than being a “last resort measure for prisoners who are in danger or are a danger to others,” has now too often become a “punishment of first resort” that, according to criminal justice advocates, is used in retaliation against prisoners including (in the case of Lester) grandmothers with cancer.
In addition to the psychological effects that solitary confinement (euphemized as the “Secure Housing Unit” or SHU) can cause, the lack of an “independent overseer determining who gets sent to isolation” and of set rules about how long a prisoner is kept there can lead to misuse and even overuse. Not surprisingly, an “almost total lack of transparency” about this punishment was highlighted in a recent joint study by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP). Another recent study that Walshe cites is by the Government Accountability Office and notes that, in federal prisons, the use of solitary confinement has increased by 17 percent in the past five years.
The Rise of For-Profit Prison Companies
The ACLU points out that the number of for-profit prison companies has grown over the past four decades, at the same time that the U.S. prison population has risen “explosively” as more people have been incarcerated for longer periods of time under more stringent laws.
Both the for-profit prison and health companies that run the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility face allegations over questionable practices. CCA has, as Think Progress says, been “held in contempt for understaffing prisons, and a few months earlier paid $600,000 to settle another lawsuit over inmate abuse.” Corizon faces lawsuit across the United States for failing to provide inmates with medical care as well as clean bedsheets, food and water. The company has also been charged with letting an inmate die instead of calling an ambulance.
Lester’s case has not yet come before the court. The details of her lawsuit make a clear case for investigating what’s going on in prisons run by for-profits whose top priority isn’t the treatment and health care of inmates.
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